Don Withrow, a motorcycle riding coach for Northern Virginia Community College, learned how to ride at age 12. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

I taught myself how to ride when I was 12. My mother had forbidden me from even looking at one. After she died, my father just kinda bit his lip and said, “Okay.” A couple of my neighborhood friends had scooters, but when I got my All-State 125, sold by Sears, I knew I had a real motorcycle. I thought I was a stud. The first time I got on it, it was exhilarating.I didn’t ever want to get off.

I wonder how I got out alive. We’d take our bikes out in the country; that’s where we got stupid. Bikes would come home in pieces. I always made it back in one piece, a bruised, skinned-up, messed-up piece of a kid. I stopped riding in my 30s because the Army wouldn’t ship my bike whenever I was transferred. In 1990, my first midlife crisis ended with a [sports car]. When my second one hit in ’98, I knew I wanted a motorcycle. And, by golly, I was going to do it right and take a class. The next year, I was teaching it.

We get people in class who’ve never even ridden a bicycle and those who’ve been running around on their Harley without a license for years. You’ll see the occasional midlife crisis, even if they won’t admit it — lots of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives. The last four years have been a lot about the economy — folks fed up spending all their time on the Metro, all their money on gas and a parking space. But even those guys can’t deny the feeling of freedom of being out there on the open road. The most wonderful time on a bike is going out alone, with no map to follow, no schedule — just time and whatever detours you want to take. You smell things like never before: the flowers — lavender and honeysuckle — in the spring, and you know when the farmers are fertilizing their fields.

I get tons of satisfaction out of this. People come in timid, scared out of their minds. I’m worried about even teasing them because they might melt all over the floor.

But at the end, the transformation is like they’ve been to hell and back. I get e-mails about rides they’ve taken, questions about gear, their first Harley, all that. But the best was [when] one said: “You saved my life today. A car was coming at me out of nowhere. I swerved just when you taught me to swerve.”